Roomful of Blues – The Band and the Brand

roomful.jpgThe story of Roomful of Blues and the New England blues scene are inextricably intertwined. The venerable Rhode Island band brings its unique style of swinging, dance-friendly R&B to the Ascutney Mountain Resort on November 30.

Countless players came through their ranks on the way to other bands. Duke Robillard, who co-founded Roomful of Blues in 1967 with piano player Al Copley, went on to front his own successful band. Drummer Fran Christina joined the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

Other past members include vocalists Curtis Salgado and Lou Ann Barton, horn players Greg Piccolo and Porky Cohen and keyboardist Ron Levy.

Some left successful bands to join Roomful of Blues. Keyboard player Travis Colby fronted Hipology before joining a few years ago, and also gigged with Ronnie Earl, the ex-Roomful guitarist who replaced Duke Robillard in 1981.

In recognition of long runs with Young Neil & the Vipers and the High Rollers, Downbeat Magazine called new lead singer Dave Howard “the de facto ruler of the little blues state” of Rhode Island. Howard joined up in early 2007, and worked on Roomful’s forthcoming CD, “Raisin’ a Ruckus.”

The new record, due in early 2008, includes eight original tunes and some covers. It maintains the feel of a Roomful of Blues live show, says Chris Vachon, the band’s lead guitarist and producer since 1990. “It’s a mix of blues styling – a little rock and roll and big band sounds, a danceable kind of thing.”

In the studio, they try to strike a balance of tight and spontaneous. “We rehearse for three or four days and just go in and record the tunes,” he says. “There’s not a whole of fixing up, so when we go out and play it, it sounds like the record.

After so many years and personnel changes – close to 50, but there’s no definitive list – Roomful of Blues is equal parts band and brand. But their essential qualities remain the same, Vachon says.

“The guys in the band like what they’re doing and the kind of music we do,” he says. “Things have changed a little bit with singers and stuff, but for the most part it’s close to where it started out.”

The current lineup, says Vachon, “has been pretty consistent for the past 3-4 years, with the exception of Dave, who just joined a little while ago.”

Vachon says he’s pleased with the group’s musical chemistry.

“We’ve had editions in the past that probably weren’t as good as we’d hoped for, for a lot of different reasons. But this particular group is really solid. Everyone does what they’re supposed to do. I’d have to say it’s one of the best lineups we’ve ever had.”

The band plays a “Jump blues” style, popularized in the 1940s by Louis Prima, Big Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris; in the 1980s, it received a modern boost from Brian Setzer and Joe Jackson. Jump blues is more disciplined, less free form music than other blues idioms, designed to get crowds up and dancing.

Over the course of a 40-year career, Roomful of Blues has worked with everyone from Count Basie to Stevie Ray Vaughn, recorded with songwriting legend Doc Pomus, and seeded a bevy of blues bands as well. Along the way, their horn section built a long resume of session credits.

When the band plays live, says Vachon, “most of our stuff is worked out as far as the arrangements and who’s going to solo.” They do occasionally loosen up and stretch things out, he says. ‘We have a few tunes, like the instrumentals, that are open. Whatever happens – we don’t say, ‘you’ve gotta take three [bars]’. If a guy’s really playing, he’ll take four, five or six.”

“It’s interesting to be able to play in a band like this where you don’t always have to be the main guy, or the main soloist, everybody kind of takes it for a little while,” he says.

Is it still fun?

“I gotta say, I still love it,” replies Vachon. “It’s a little tiring once in a while out on the road, and it’s tough to be away, but I still enjoy it.”

At one time, the band did as many as 200 shows a year, but they’ve trimmed their extensive performing schedule. “We used to be on the road a lot, constantly,” he says. “We’re cutting back to weekends now, and then we’ll go out on tour for a couple of weeks and come back.”

“I can see my wife a little more,” he says. “I’m on my second marriage, so it’s kind of more important to me to spend time and take care of my home.”

Apparently, absence makes the musical heart grow fonder. “If we haven’t played together in a while, we have a ball,” says Vachon. “It’s different than playing five nights a week.”

Local Rhythms – Reasons to be Thankful

turkey.gifOK, it’s time to thank the people who’ve made my life as a music lover enjoyable over the past year.

First of all, thanks to Ray Massuco, for keeping the flame alive in Bellows Falls. He promoted his first Roots on the River festival in June. The weather cooperated and the music was, as always, sublime. Because of Ray, I found a new musical treasure in 2007 – Chris O’Brien, who I’m assured will be back on the Boccelli’s stage very soon

Cheers to Dave Clark, for maintaining the wonderful Yellow House Media web site ( If you haven’t been there, you’re missing a chance to sample some of the area’s best bands. You’ve heard of the Stone Cold Roosters, but you won’t hear them on the radio. You can, however get a full dose of them and others – Anais Mitchell, the Cold River Ranters, Juke Joynt and the Gully Boys – at Dave’s place on the web.

Thank you Steve Smith, for talking the talk and walking the walk. WVRR’s new management ungraciously got him the hook after he’d performed the minor miracle of turning Lebanon’s Clear Channel affiliate into a local resource. Steve responded by bringing back WCNL from history and launching his own station – in his hometown of Newport.

Josh & Joe Tuohy – I can’t thank these guys enough. Salt Hill Pub is now a twin dynamo, bringing fine Irish fare and the best pints anywhere to both Lebanon and Newport. Of course, I’m wild about the music at both venues. Bands like Sirsy, Hot Day at the Zoo, Roamin’ Gabriels and others are always fun, never predictable.

Chris Jones: The Middle Earth Music Hall’s Buddah-In-Chief had this to say in a recent email: “When I come across something special and unique, the force that drives me is the desire to show it to my friends.” He calls his Bradford, Vermont hobbit-hole a place “where the odds are good that the goods are odd.” It’s been a struggle at times, but the Shire survives because Chris won’t cave to the ordinary. Thanks!

To Reid and Danna Hannula; what was downtown Claremont before Sophie & Zekes? I have a hard time remembering, but I know that Pleasant Street is jumping now. Jazz has new hometown, not to mention eclectic bluegrass (the upcoming Bradford Bog People), hot blues (Kid Pinky) and a landlocked Margaritaville every time Pete Merrigan comes to town.

Some others deserving a tip of the hat: Jim Olsen, for running a record label (Signature Sounds) with passion, not cupidity, Bob Lefsetz, for providing a provocative, albeit occasionally overheated, vision of the way the music business should and will be, and mavericks like Thom Yorke and a million MySpace bands for helping to make it happen.

It’s a great time to be a music fan. Here are a few good local options for the days ahead:

Thursday: Sacred Harp Singing, Hanover Friends Meeting House – If you’re looking for a diversion on Thanksgiving Day, this might fill the bill – but only if you love to sing. Sacred Harp, for those of you who didn’t see “Cold Mountain,” is shape note music sung at large gatherings, usually a capella. Think of it as a cross between open mike night and a flash mob, only holier.

Friday: Draa Hobbs, Sophie & Zeke’s – An in-demand guitarist returns to Claremont. Hobbs has played with a long list of jazz luminaries, did a stint in Al Alessi’s band, held forth at Oona’s before the fire, and most recently helped singer-songwriter Lisa McCormick with her newest album. Tonight, he brings along a saxophone player (whose identity is a mystery), so expect to hear his jazzier side.

Saturday: Kind Buds, Salt Hill II – This pair made a big impression over the summer festival season. I think of them as the Dark Star Duo – they love the Grateful Dead (enough that they sat on a recent symposium about the band), and they do a lot of their songs – very well. But they’re not a one-trick pony – their spirited originals are pretty tasty, too. You can hear them on Yellow House Media.

Tuesday: Little Big Town/Sugarland, Cumberland County Civic Center – Pop and rock have become a paint by the numbers game, but country music is impossible to pin down – call it the Eagles Factor. Little Big Town’s harmonies are cool enough to keep ice cream from melting, and Sugarland is fronted by Jennifer Nettles – definitely the best part of Bon Jovi’s recent hit, “You Can’t Go Home.”

Wednesday: Handel’s Messiah, Hopkins Center – With the holiday shopping season underway, it’s a good time to remember what a good many people are celebrating. First performed in Dublin in 1742, this edition of Handel’s Messiah is particularly special, with celebrated German conductor Helmuth Rilling leading the Handel Society. If there’s a chorale sample more ubiquitous than “Hallelujah,” I haven’t heard it.